Over the past week thousands of young men and women have been arriving in Israel to begin their year or years of study in Yeshiva or Seminary, and upon collecting their baggage at Ben Gurion airport carrying their unique name or a unique label they will present their regular or biometric passport to the border control who – upon confirming that they are who they say they are – will grant them formal entry into Israel.
I’ve always wondered what its like to work at border control where you see so many similar travelers every day while also making sure that you have granted entry to that unique traveler, and upon further thought it occurred to me that underpinning their often thankless task is the recognition that, as our Sages teach us, each person is unique (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5) and each face is not like each other (Bemidbar Rabbah 21:2).
However, our Sages continue by explaining that ‘just as their faces are not like each other, so are their minds not like each other’, meaning that just as our physical appearance is unique, so too are our thoughts, attitudes and emotions. Yet in contrast to those working in border control whose task it is to notice and acknowledge the unique features of each person, many teachers often make sweeping generalisations about those sitting in their classrooms, and while they may appreciate the fact that all faces are different (which helps them learn the names of their new students), they often fail to sufficiently acknowledge how all minds are different too and instead, teach what they are teaching as if all those in their classroom were the same.
However, this is not what education is about, and it is significant that the Chazon Ish emphasizes how ‘it is the obligation of educators to study every individual and to find the roots of their personality’ (Emunah UBitachon Ch. 4) because, as he continues, education with little regard for the unique learner is no less harmful than medicine given to a patient with no regard for their physical needs or medical history.
Of course it takes time for teachers to get to know students which can at times be frustrating for students, but as Rav Pam once remarked, ‘some rebbeim teach Gemara… don’t teach Gemara… teach talmidim; focus on the person, not the subject’ and I believe that as long as a student knows that the primary goal of their teachers is to ‘focus on the person’, they’ll be patient notwithstanding the fact that in the early part of the year the learning may not directly speak to ‘the roots of their personality’.
As a teacher I am blessed to teach in two seminaries where we as institutions, and I as a teacher, invest heavily in teaching and guiding the individual, but over my past twenty years of teaching I am prepared to admit that there were times when I got the balance wrong and when I placed greater emphasis on the subject than the person. In fact, looking back these rare moments are undoubtedly my greatest regret. Yet it is precisely given this hindsight which is why I am writing this post.
This is why this time of year is so exciting and also so nerve-wracking for a teacher, because while I know I know the subjects I am teaching, I also know that I don’t know the students I am to be teaching, and as someone who recognizes that teaching is a true work of heart this means that it is simply impossible to be fully prepared for the journey of encountering many different faces with many different minds carrying many different thoughts, attitudes and emotions. And this is precisely why I love teaching so much!
Wishing you all a successful year of teaching!